More cowbell. Volume at 11. Pump up the bass.
The Toronto Raptors have doubled down on the offensive success they enjoyed in their most enjoyable season – the first two weeks of May excepted – in hiring offensive co-ordinator Nick Nurse to replace Dwane Casey and become the ninth head coach in franchise history.
The 50-year-old music fan – he saw the Rolling Stones at Old Trafford in Manchester just last week – is now the man playing the tunes in Toronto
Nurse gets the nod following a season in which the club rode a far-reaching offensive makeover to win a record 59 games before being swept in the second round by the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second consecutive year.
It was the Raptors’ struggles against the Cavs – 2-12 against them in the last three post-seasons, including 10 straight losses – that sealed Casey’s fate even as the most accomplished coach Toronto has ever had remains the favourite be named the NBA’s coach of the year later this month and after the Detroit Pistons ponied up a five-year contract worth $35 million for his services on Monday.
Details of Nurse’s deal were still being worked out, according to team sources, but he’ll be a cheaper option on a shorter deal than Casey.
But at any price and under any terms it’s now on him to find unearthed value in a roster that is largely set barring any foundation-shaking trades of its expensive, veteran core pieces.
Nurse is Ujiri’s first head coaching hire – remarkable given he’s entering his ninth year as general manager or team president. He was determined to run a thorough search after firing the popular Casey a month ago. But Nurse’s best advertisement might have been the way the Raptors played most of last season as Toronto jumped into the NBA’s modern “space-and-pace” attack with gusto.
They jumped from 22nd to third in three-pointers attempted and from 30th in the percentage of baskets generated by assists to 11th as they weaned themselves off a more isolation-reliant approach that was effective in the regular season but seemed to be easier to lock down in the playoffs. The Raptors improved to third overall offensively, averaging 111 points per 100 possessions in the regular season and maintained a respectable 110/100 in the playoffs even as there were signs of the team reverting to hold habits at times.
It was easy to blame Casey when things went south the past five years and how fresh a voice a longtime assistant can be with what projects to be a fairly stable roster remains to be seen.
Now it will be Nurse in the spotlight and Ujiri under scrutiny if the move doesn’t pay dividends.
It is Nurse’s first crack at an NBA head coaching job after five years as an assistant, all in Toronto and all working for Casey. In the past season he made known privately he was determined to earn a head coaching opportunity and when Ujiri decided his team needed a different approach after Casey’s seven years with the club, Nurse beat out internal candidates Jerry Stackhouse (since hired as an assistant in Memphis) and Rex Kalamian (rumoured as a candidate to join Doc Rivers with the Los Angeles Clippers) and leading external options Ime Udoka and ultimately Ettore Messina, both assistants with the San Antonio Spurs.
“He’s ready,” Ujiri said of Nurse as he was still mulling over whether Nurse or Messina – a legendary head coach in European basketball and the other finalist for the job – would get the final nod.
It is believed the decision was largely made over the weekend after both Messina and Nurse were interviewed for a second time last week. It was “nitpicking” after that, says Ujiri, comparing the final candidate’s relative strengths and weaknesses.
In the end it was Ujiri’s call, with Raptors ownership signalling only that they wanted to meet their new head coach, rather than be part of the interview process.
Nurse, a 50-year-old native of Iowa, broke into coaching in the British Basketball League and was last a head coach in the G-League with the Rio Grande Vipers where he gained a reputation for a willingness to think outside the box offensively while working in what amounted to a skunkworks lab on behalf the Houston Rockets, who leaned heavily on their G-League team to experiment with various styles of play.
The three-point-heavy attack that the Rockets have pushed the envelope with in recent years as they emerged as one of the most efficient offences in league history was previewed by Nurse in Rio Grande where the Vipers led the G-League (then the D-League) in three-pointers made and attempted in both of Nurse’s seasons running the team.
After winning his second G-League title as a head coach (Nurse won his first in 2011 with the Iowa Energy) in 2013 he was hired by the Raptors.
Houston was sad to see him go after choosing Nurse from a pool of 15 candidates for the G-League job. “You want guys to do well but it was disappointing to see him go,” said Gersson Rosas, the executive vice-president of basketball operations for the Rockets who hired Nurse for the Vipers and who was a reference for Nurse in the Raptors coaching search. “When we hire guys for our G-League team we look at them as an extension of the Rockets and see them as potential head coaches or high-level assistants in the NBA. The past few years we’ve missed what he would have brought to our staff.
“He’s a critical thinker, he looks at things in different, very creative way,” said Rosas. “He’s not a multi-generational NBA coach who is going to look at things the same way over and over again. He’s a grinder, we [Houston] lost a good one.”
How good he can make the Raptors is the issue now that Ujiri has tabbed him as the person who can somehow get more out of a roster that has won an average of 55 games the past three seasons under Casey, made the playoffs in five straight and fared solidly in the post-season against teams other than the James-led Cavaliers.
One coach who has worked with Nurse in the past and who asked to remain anonymous as he’s a candidate for assistant jobs with multiple teams predicted that the Raptors’ offensive revolution started this past season will be completed under Nurse if he can realize his vision:
“I can guarantee you that there will be a lot more movement away from the ball with him as the head coach,” he said. “[Nurse] is also very creative with changing who sets screens and who is in which spot on the floor. He may run the same play multiple times with guys in different spots. [It] changes who is where defensively and opens up ball movement to different shooters/drivers.”
The challenge for rookie head coaches generally and in particular those who were previously assistant coaches with the same team is making the transition from a trusted confidant to the boss.
Nurse would routinely be seen in long conversations with Jonas Valanciunas after practices or would spend extra time working with the Raptors’ youthful second unit, building a relationship that is difficult for head coaches to create.
As a head coach the only loyalty is to the team and now it will be Nurse potentially curtailing Valanciunas’s fourth-quarter playing time or otherwise elevating or lowering players’ roles. He’s not the buffer, he’s the law.
Kyle Lowry’s relationship with Casey improved significantly over their years together in Toronto but Lowry will always test his coaches and now it’s up to Nurse to manage his relationship with his demanding, high-IQ, all-star point guard.
“Leading with confidence will be key for him, it’s going to make dealing with ‘tougher players’ a lot easier in tough situations,” his former colleague said.
But Nurse’s perceived strengths should help him. He’s considered a good communicator, a strong in-game coach, quick to adjust, and adapt as game plans inevitably get disrupted over the course of play, a perceived weakness of Casey’s that came under scrutiny in the playoffs.
Of course, Nurse was one of the people charged with coming up with those game plans and as a prominent assistant always had the opportunity to have his voice heard as games unfolded.
After another season ending in playoff disappointment he’ll now have the chance to be the first and last voice heard; the Raptors’ success or failure reflecting on him.
After five years as part of the band he’s the one calling the tunes.